Aren't kids' toys wonderful?

But are they as safe as they could be?

From the perspective of someone who grew up in the era of stuffed animals with button eyes - easy to chew off, swallow, and choke on - it seems we've come a long way.

Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether the problem with today's toys isn't so much that they're hazardous as that they're preposterous. Products marketed as baby's first cellphone actually exist!

But that would be wrong. A study published online Monday by the journal Pediatrics found that from 1990 through 2011, nearly 3.3 million children were treated in U.S. emergency rooms for toy-related injuries.

In 2011, researchers at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Ohio found, children were treated every three minutes for such injuries. Most of the children were younger than 5.

Children younger than 3 were most at risk for choking on small toys or parts of toys.

Older children were more likely to be injured on toys they ride. Those injuries were more likely to involve broken bones or dislocations.

The foot-powered scooters that became popular starting in 2000 are responsible for an overall increase in the toy injury rate since then, the researchers found.

Also on Monday, the U.S. Public Research Interest Group (PIRG) released its 29th annual survey of toy safety. Joined by emergency room doctors in 44 states - none in this region - the national nonprofit found that although progress had been made, the toy shelves still contain hazards.

Twenty-three children's toys - comprising more than 366,000 units - were recalled by the government in 2013, according to the advocacy group Kids in Danger. The same year, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission received nine reports of toy-related deaths.

Parents still need to shop with care.

This year, PIRG's testing lab found a toy tambourine with nine times the legal level of the heavy metal chromium.

A badge playset included a sheriff's star with amounts of lead above legal limits.

A leopard-patterned rubber duck contained excessive amounts of a particular phthalate. Phthalates are plasticizers that could harm development of the male reproductive system.

The lab also found toys marketed for young children that posed choking hazards and ingestion hazards - such as small magnet sets. The concern is that if multiple magnets are swallowed, they could come together and form a blockage.

The group lauded 2008 legislation that gave the Consumer Product Safety Commission more authority to protect children from dangerous toys.

"Mandatory toy standards, lower lead and phthalate limits, independent third-party testing, and increased port inspections stop more dangerous toys than ever before from reaching toy shelves," said Rachel Weintraub, legislative director at the Consumer Federation of America, an association of nonprofit consumer organizations.

But PIRG pointed out that not all toys comply with the law, and holes in the toy safety net remain. The 44-page report, "Trouble in Toyland," is available at www.uspirg.org.

The Toy Industry Association, a nonprofit trade group, blasted both the report and PIRG: The study was flawed. Testing labs weren't accredited. (Not true, says PIRG.)

The association maintained that toys are already "highly regulated" by the federal government (no one said they weren't).

"Toy safety is the top priority of the toy industry, and we welcome responsible individuals and organizations in joining our year-round efforts to protect children at play," said association president Carter Keithley. He contended PIRG's "spurious reports" merely "wrongly maligned" some perfectly good toys.

The association also claimed the Consumer Product Safety Commission had not recalled any toys the report flagged in the last six years.

Yet, in 2010, the commission recalled Big Rex and Friends cloth books because of the risk of lead exposure, and it credited U.S. PIRG for the alert.

So maybe the biggest trouble in toyland is that the experts are too busy bickering to work together for the benefit of our children.

GreenSpace: How to Select Safer Toys

Check labels to select age-appropriate toys. Keep toys for older and younger children separate.

Avoid choking hazards. Children younger than 3 should play only with toy parts larger than the opening of a toilet-paper tube.

Don't allow young children to play with magnet toys. If swallowed, they can adhere to each other.

Don't allow young children to play with cords or strings longer than 12 inches.

Inspect toys at the store, looking for sturdy parts and tightly secured joints.

Make sure plush toys have age-appropriate features, such as embroidered eyes and noses.

Make sure batteries are firmly enclosed, inaccessible to children.

Avoid heavy toys. Consider whether the child would be injured if the toy fell on him or her.

Listen to toys that make noise. If it sounds too loud, it probably is.

Use riding toys only on dry, flat surfaces, away from vehicle traffic.

SOURCES: U.S. Public Interest Research Group; Toy Industry Association, Nationwide Children's Hospital.EndText

"GreenSpace," about the environment and health, appears every other week, alternating with Art Carey's "Well Being" column.

sbauers@phillynews.com

215-854-5147 @sbauers

www.philly.com/greenspace.